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Roadside Religion cover Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith, by Timothy K. Beal, Beacon Press, 224 pages, 2005. ISBN 0807010626

More Religion

Than Roadside

The theology

of attractions

There's a good deal more religion than roadside in Timothy Beal's new book Roadside Religion. While not above gawking at roadside oddities that are, after all, odd, Beal is determined to plow through layers of kitsch to get at the real religious spirit they might obscure.

That might seem daunting when faced with places like Precious Moments Inspiration Park (yes, those preciously cute Moments), but Beal is a professor of religion in daily life and up to the challenge. He finds seriousness of purpose where the average guidebook would just extract chuckles from the trashy come-ons and mind-numbing sentimentality.

There is significance to these places, no matter how impervious to meaning a place offering biblical mini golf might seem. If you're interested in religious obsessives, you could do worse than follow Beal to these 11 sites, ranging from the pathetic (Golgotha Fun Park golf) to the seriously outsider (W.C. Rice's Cross Garden).

It's no surprise that Beal finds evidence of what he calls "outsider religion." There is something deeply personal about the intense vision required to invent one of these places, and the result can be the kind of eloquent expression characteristic of outsider art.

The analogy is useful, though it sets the same traps that trouble the concept of outsider art. Treating these places as a way of "illuminating ‘insider religion,'" as Beal puts it, hardly does justice to the creative, and quite meaningful, perspectives these outsiders bring to bear on spiritual matters, inside, outside or otherwise.

Even more slippery is the concept of authenticity, which is a familiar hobbyhorse from the debates over folk and outsider art. Authenticity most often involves layers of wishful thinking and cultural projections that mask the flight from sophistication into rank sentimentality. Beal is charmed by the low-budget funkiness of Holy Land USA in Bedford County, Virginia, epitomized in cutout holy figures viewed from a tractor-drawn wagon. But to the Holy Land Experience in Orlando he applies the ultimate epithet of inauthenticity -- Disneyesque.

Based on his sympathetic accounts of other equally fanatic venues, it clearly isn't the pitch of the religiosity that Beal finds soulless but rather the dispassionate calculation behind it. In his mind, the Orlando Holy Land's frankly ideological re-creations of biblical experiences seem too professional, a complaint that resonates with common criticisms of purported outsider art.

In the profoundly constructed world of evangelical Christianity, however, it's hard to see how authenticity is relevant. (If religious fanaticism isn't at core authentic, what is?) But Beal can't resist chasing after the authenticity wil o the wisp. Fortunately, his rather moralistic taste for the ingenuous allowed him to respond to these places at a much deeper level than he expected when he set out to write the book. His histories and spiritual critiques would be hard to find anywhere else.

Beal is open to the allure of sites that might normally seem well into the realm of the ridiculous. Most dramatically, the sincerity behind the kitsch at the Precious Moments Inspiration Park in Carthage, Missouri, thoroughly disarms him. Its roots may be highly commercial, and he may be sheepish about finding himself truly engaged, but he delves deeply into the painful history behind the place and the sincere quest for transcendence it represents. He convincingly portrays its weirdness while also capturing the pathos.

Beal does not, in fact, show a specific preference for schmaltz. Indeed, one of his best chapters evokes the experience of W.C. Rice's stark, deeply confrontational religious environment near Montgomery, Alabama. You feel directly connected with the creator's prickly spiritual consciousness. Not so successful is his account of Howard Finster's Paradise Garden, which yields little of interest about Finster or the site. It perhaps made a difference that Beal met and interviewed Rice, where Finster was dead and the garden decayed long before he made his trip to Summerville, Georgia. Although the garden made a strong impression on the author, his appreciation would have been much more interesting, and unique, had it included a serious analysis of Finster's theology. Similarly, an account of how people who share Finster's belief system respond to his work would provide very useful insights to people who limit their response strictly to the aesthetic dimension.

With the exception of Finster's garden, Beal is more interested in the religion than in the art or its creative dynamics. He's also more interested in the personal details of his pilgrimage, for much of which his wife and two children accompanied him. In some respects it's hard to fault the personal approach. One's response to these sites is bound to be determined to a great extent by one's own religious views and background. In his youth a conservative evangelical, Beal is more recently a Christian of very liberal spirituality. That puts him in a good position to engage with the theology behind the attractions he visits, but with enough distance to make his appraisals honest.

The personal approach also contributes a bit of a travelogue feel -- probably more like the book he set out to write. But less family diary and more aesthetic insight would have been in order. In fact, the book's primary -- nearly fatal -- flaw is the almost incidental attention to the art. Although this is supposed to be a book about roadside attractions, most receive only a single, dingy black-and-white photo.

A place like The World's Largest 10 Commandments in Murphy, North Carolina, does not constitute art in the same sense as Rice's Cross Garden or the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, Alabama, which Beal also visited, but its physical presence as a landscape environment is at least as interesting as the background of the Holiness denomination that built it. While Beal supplies plenty of context about the latter and tries to describe the former, the book's format does no justice to the look of the place. Admirable as it is to explore what's behind the creation of these sites, it takes more than words to appreciate or even understand them as places. Beal's barely legible photos cannot do them justice and thus, ultimately, neither can his book.

A version of this review originally appeared in the Intuit magazine, published by the Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.

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Copyright William Swislow 2005